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An Interview with Toni Smith
O ne year ago, Toni Smith was just another Division III athlete grinding through her senior year as captain of the women’s basketball team at Manhattanville College in New York. Then her decision to protest on the court at the start of the U.S. attack on Iraq by turning her back on the flag during the national anthem sparked debate throughout the sports and political world. Today, Toni Smith is living in New York City and working for a young people’s mentoring program called New York Youth at Risk (www. nyyouthatrisk.org).
ZIRIN: When did you first see the need to make a stand and why did you feel it was so important to take the actions that you did?
SMITH: I’m from a mixed racial and ethnic background. My mom is Jewish and my dad is Black, white, and Cherokee. I was learning about the prison industrial complex and the wars against Native Americans. It made me very angry, but I never paid attention to how this history played out on the [basketball] court. I never thought about the National Anthem because I went to alternative schools. I never had to say the pledge. I never had to stand and salute anything before class.
So last year I was talking with my boyfriend. His family’s very politically active also. They don’t ever stand for the National Anthem and they’re very clear on their position. We were talking about all the policies we dislike and he said, “Why do you stand for the anthem at your games?” I said, “Well I never really thought about it. I’m the captain of the team and I have to be a team leader and a good role model.” He said, “But that has nothing to do with who you are. This is not what you believe in.” He’s part Black and part Cherokee also and he said, “This flag represents the slaughter of our ancestors” and I said “you’re absolutely right.” We had a game a few days later and as we stood up for the National Anthem, I said no.
When was this?
This was probably the first week in December . It was at NYU. I thought, “No, this is not more important than my beliefs. This [ritual] has nothing to do with who I am.” I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t really think of it as something that should be made public. It went unnoticed even by my teammates and family. Then the president of the school came up to me and said, “If anyone gives you any trouble, send them to me.” I said “Alright, but it’s not an issue.” Then he told me that there was this huge uproar, that several parents of team members were furious and were threatening to go to the NCAA.
A few of the parents went to the president of the school. The next thing that happened was one of my teammates called my dorm room and said, “You have to look on instant messenger. You have to see what our teammates are writing about you.” There was this back and forth battle saying, “I can’t believe Toni’s doing this; what kind of a team captain is she?” No one asked me why, no one confronted me about it. The next day in the locker room I confronted the girl who began the discussion and that turned into an explosion within the team.
Every news story said you were protesting the war on Iraq in particular. Was that the case?
Iraq was the icing on the cake. The war took me from angry at the general direction of the U.S. to, “Are you kidding?” But it wasn’t just the war. It was everything that the flag is built on, everything that is continuing to happen and things that haven’t even happened yet.
Why do you think your actions touched such a nerve?
debate around the war, no question. We were playing a game at St.
Joseph’s. Their assistant coach had just been sent over to
fight. They were angry. Nothing really came about it at that game,
but the next team we were scheduled to play was the Merchant Marines
Academy. People at St. Joseph’s called and warned them about
me. In addition, a news reporter got a hold of it. The Merchant
Marine Academy was the worst team in the league. They were something
like 0 and 25. They don’t have any fans, but let me tell you,
the gym was packed for our game. You can’t imagine what it
was like. They had cadets lined up on the sidelines, each with their
own seven foot flag. Every single person in the stand was in uniform,
with a flag. They were shouting things at me—obscenities, curses,
you name it. It was unbelievable. It was so bad that even the teammates
who hated what I was doing had to put themselves in my place and
defend my position. It came down to, “You’re not going
to disrespect my team.” That news reporter captured how angry
everyone was at that game and at the next game, the AP was there
and the story took off.
Out of teammates, coaches, administration, school president, who was supportive and who wasn’t?
Half of my teammates were completely against everything I was doing. There were four women who were very against me and tried to make my life a living hell. The one who started the instant messenger drama sent a petition around the school, saying, “Sign this to demand that Toni Smith return all her financial aid because she is disrespecting our school.” What’s the point in that? We were teammates in the middle of the season, one of the best seasons our school has ever had. They talked to reporters when we were asked not to by the coach and by the president. When I finally decided to talk to the press, it was because my teammates were speaking out without permission. It got to the point where either they’re going to have lies out there or I speak up.
Did any teammates back you up?
Two of my teammates stood next to me during the National Anthem, one in front of me, one behind me, holding my hands. I couldn’t hang out with anyone else on the team. Then there were four or so women who were in between. It was, “I don’t agree with your position, but respect your right to do it, but I wish you weren’t doing it because it’s making life hell for the team.” I can respect that. They tried to stay neutral because we were friends. They were torn between me and what their parents thought—the season was difficult for them.
What about your coach?
I have to give it to him. He took a lot of slack for not punishing me. I think it was very important for Manhattanville, promoting itself as a liberal arts college, with socially and ethically aware graduates, that he was so supportive. He made it a point not to include his personal views and I still don’t know what he thought, but he definitely supported my right to protest, whether he would rather I did it or not. I really commend him for that because he didn’t have to. Not just that, but he reprimanded those players who were deliberately going against his orders for the team [about talking to the press].
In the Merchant Marines game, you painted a picture of a team that was able to pull together. Was that just a one game thing?
There was tension throughout the season. It got to a point towards the end where we had to agree to disagree. It took a lot more energy for them to trash me and for me to hate them than to just play together. I think our team had so much potential to be a great team and that overpowered everything else that was going on. I think everyone realized the potential that we had to have a really great season and to break records that our school our team has never broken, and I think that was more important. We ended up with the third best record in the history of Manhattanville. I don’t know how we played together and did it, but we did.
If someone were to ask, “Why demonstrate on the basketball court?” What would you say?
It wasn't really a stand. It was just, “I’m here to play basketball and I have to salute the flag? I don’t want to.” Manhattanville is a small Division III school. Our fans consisted of close friends, family, and a few women. Not more than 60 people would be at the games. So it would not be the best place to get a message out.
What do you say to people who counter, “Sports is no place for a political acts?”
During World War II, when the U.S. decided that we needed to show our superiority to other countries, they implemented the National Anthem before sporting events. When they did that they put politics in the middle of sports. The question is not why did I choose to turn my back on the flag. It’s why do we have to do this at basketball games? If they don’t want politics in sports then they need to take the National Anthem out because that is inherently political.
Last year people didn’t want to acknowledge that we were going to war. They wanted to hide it. It can become really easy to not acknowledge the fact that we are killing people in other countries because it’s not here. A big issue I had with September 11 was that was the first event since Pearl Harbor where there was an attack of such magnitude on this country. You could see this all over the place, people going, “Never forget, never forget 9/11.” September 11 was terrible, but that level of destruction is every single day for other people in other countries. I think it is unbelievably arrogant to say [in the aftermath of 9/11], “Now we can do whatever we want.” It has sent the message that, “We are better than you. We are superior human beings to everyone else in the world.” It’s really appalling.
Were you asked to speak at any anti-war demonstrations?
After the season, I was asked once or twice to come and speak and I declined. I felt if I was going to attend demonstrations, I was going to attend them as a regular person, not a person of importance. If it ever got to the point where I was speaking at a rally, it would be because I had done the work, I had paid the dues, and I didn’t feel like I deserved that.
Did you ever feel physically threatened during this whole process?
The guy who walked onto the court with the flag; I actually didn’t feel threatened by him. I think we were all in too much shock- as to how he got onto the court and why he was interrupting our game to do this- to even be scared about it. It wasn’t until afterwards, when my family and a few of my friends were really outraged. “How could this school let him get on the campus? What if he had a weapon? You’re not safe.” Then I got a bit concerned; but I still wasn’t scared. I got one letter in the mail that was a death threat. It said, “I’ve seen you, I’ve been close enough to touch you, I’m a disabled veteran, I’ll find you again, you won’t be able to disrespect my country anymore, I’ll make sure that it’s an end for you.” That scared me. I was a little bit frightened after that, and I was more cautious about where I went for a little while.
Did you feel any of the coverage was skewed because of sexism?
I didn’t think it at first. Someone brought it to my attention. They said, “You’re threatening. You are saying things that no one is saying right now. You’re protesting things that people are too afraid to protest, and you’re a woman.” That really got me thinking after that. I still don’t know what conclusions I’ve come to because of it, but I definitely feel people don’t expect women to be bold and speak out. I think when women do, then that puts you in another category, which is, “You must be a lesbian, you must be mean, you’re not a lady.” It brings up hundreds of other stories.
We’ve seen that happen with other female athletes—ones who don’t pose for magazines, ones who come out. It completely discredits you as an athlete, as a person. People don’t want to hear your story after that. Even in a lot of the letters I got, it went back to my looks. It all went back to my physical appearance.
Have the events in Iraq validated the stand that you took?
Nothing anyone ever said invalidated or made me question what I did. The only thing I ever questioned was my safety and the safety of my family and friends. But the way I felt at the time was that there were many protests during the Vietnam War that outraged people. Then when circumstances came to light about how illegal the war was and how many died senselessly, people said, “Oh, now I get it.”
There are a lot of people who were angry at the time, saying, “How dare you not support my son, he’s going off to war.” Now either their son has died or their son is still over there and they realize that this war is bogus and they don’t have any health insurance or they have to wait on line for food. Now they say, “Oh, now I get what you were trying to say. Now my daughter’s over there and I can’t help when I could have helped before.”
Do you have any regrets?
I’m really big on not living with regrets. There are always things in your life you’re not going to be happy with, choices you’ve made that you’re not pleased with, but every choice you make you make it for a reason and you might not know what that reason is until later, and it might hurt you at the time, but eventually it pans out and it shapes who you are as a person.
Do have any final comments?
Yes. I was one of those kids who went to overcrowded schools with no books and we had to recycle Xerox copies of books. When I got to college and I told my stories of high school—how we didn’t have a gym, how we played in a junior high school across the street—they said “Oh, my god. I can’t believe you had to do this, I can’t believe you didn’t have this, you didn’t have books.” We were assigned to write ten-page research papers and none of them knew how to do it. I was in a higher writing class than any of my friends and they were complaining, “How can I write a three page paper? What’s an introduction? How do I end it?”
They didn’t know one thing from another. It is unfair that there is such unequal funding between school districts, but there is something to gain from every situation. Examine where you feel overlooked, uncounted, deemed unimportant, and use it to build yourself up. I would not trade the education I received for an education at a private school. It’s all about what you take from life, not what you feel life is or is not giving you. The script is unwritten until we write our own stories.
Dave Zirin is the News Editor of the Prince George’s Post in Prince George’s County, Maryland. His sports writing can be read at www.edgeofsports.com.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
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RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
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HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.